Early Modern Letter-Writing: Culture and Practice

Module code: EN7245

In early modern society, if you were not able to speak to your interlocutor face-to-face, then a letter was your main alternative option for communication. Thus, the material page, the language and expression, and the manner of delivery carried significant social meaning in order to build the relationship between letter-writer and recipient. This ensured that the intended communicative objective was successful whether a son was writing to his mother, a merchant writing to a customer or someone offering advice on governance and rule.

In this module, you'll consider the rich history of letter-writing and its diverse realisations within early modern England, as read through literary, material and linguistic lenses. You'll examine the theoretical systems developed for epistolary writing, and their connection to, and rejection of, their medieval and Classical predecessors. You'll consider how the material components of a letter (the layout, handwriting, methods of folding and sealing) came to acquire rich semiotic meanings, and can provide evidence of the contexts of composition and reception.

Throughout you'll be looking at the significations of the letter, as object and as language act, in literary spaces such as on the stage, and explore the relationship between the letter as text and letter as fiction, as the antecedent of the novel. Our discussions examine, critique and apply a range of methodological and analytic techniques useful in the exploration of the early modern letter, such as palaeography (handwriting), and corpus analysis.


  • 10 hours of seminars
  • 140 hours of guided independent study


  • Essay, 3,000 words (100%)
  • Formative exercise, 500 words (0%)